This is the first part of our series on Leadership insights from Shakespeare
The following is a series of articles on deriving leadership and management insights from the works of William Shakespeare, mainly the plays. Four tragedies will become the basis of exploring the psychology of leadership and executive failure. We will explore Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear as tragic characters. Leaders fail for a variety of psychological and psychosocial reasons – a very capable man at odds with himself and the environment he operates in. And this is triggered off by an element of his own making that goes on to become his ‘fatal flaw’!
But before we dive into the timeless nuggets Shakespeare offers, let us answer basic questions. Why Shakespeare? Why texts that is upwards of 400 years old? The hopes, despairs, aspirations, trials and tribulations, joys and sorrows are they very stuff we humans are made of and these are timeless. The plays of Shakespeare operate at a level of depth and truth that it allows for an anatomical understanding of personalities and in return, of us. The purpose therefore is to see ourselves in the characters and situations that we analyze. A lasting text is the one that lends itself to interpretation in changing times. It is conceived and written from a level of psychological truth that abides – that is unfaltering over time. The lesson from Shakespeare primarily is ethical as against moral, actualization as against inspirational.
Mine will be a deliberate attempt to correlate the traditional with the modern and the archaic with the contemporary with the hope of deciphering the leitmotif in the human condition. The aim is to understand the deeper issues that influence the world of leadership from inside out, to build a perspective so that we can see the big things as big and the small things as small.
In this fascinating journey, we may rediscover ourselves and find for the first time a freshness of perspective that integrates us with the world that had been until now filled with ennui and existential dilemmas. To participate critically in the some of the best plays of Shakespeare is to develop a personal and interpersonal acumen that goes on to become the leadership differential.
“Things fall apart / The centre cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world / The blood dimmed is loosed/ And everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” – WB Yeates
Julius Caesar is a quasi-historical play in that it has a historical context but the characters are fleshed out with unparalleled creative imagination and may consequently have very little in common with the original personalities of Caesar, Anthony, Brutus, Portia, etc.
But they are as close to real, spherical characters as possible. And this is the genius of Shakespeare. The play is a political one and explores the issue of loyalty and patriotism, of deception and conflicting ideology, of rhetoric and truth, of superstition and courage, of dignity and disaster. A seething cauldron of man's aspirations in a world fuelled by entropic compulsions. What is significant is that Shakespeare titles the play after Julius Caesar but writes the tragedy of Brutus. Brutus is a kind, well-meaning, patriotic, honorable and dignified person. Highly regarded by the Romans, loved and trusted by Caesar, and respected by the conspirators. And to think this man will meet a tragic end! A brutal end! It will be interesting to explore why and how this end happens.
Brutus is the most complex character in the play and although he is honorable and admired, he is not practical and assumes that people’s manifest opinions and beliefs are indeed the real ones. He is naïve and chooses to force-fit his behavior to a strict moral and ethical code. He was a stoic by belief and value system and this seems to have conditioned him to the extent that he is unable to practice meaningfully the flexibility that the vicissitudes of everyday life demands. This is not to imply that unethical practices have a rationale for existence in corporate life. They don’t. At all. But a middle path, a ‘golden mean’ as Aristotle called it would have saved Brutus a lot of trouble. He was more driven by the forced desire to keep consistent with stoicism and nobility than with the reality of the situation in its entirety. After all Caesar was not the monster he was made out to be. He wasn’t the brutal dictator that Cassius so deceptively made him out to be. He was a soldier, proud and committed and full of drawbacks. But that’s what makes him human! Brutus was thus driven by the desire to be seen as Rome’s only honorable man. The tragedy is he believed himself too much – much like the management consultant who being equipped only with a hammer treats every problem as a nail. Or worse, like a physician, who diagnoses your disease on the basis of the medicines he has! Brutus is trapped by his own self-sabotaging intelligence, by a philosophy that is his conditioning him so completely that an alternative view is not possible. And when an alternative view does emerge, he explains it away into insignificance. He uses too much of his stature to abusively perpetuate these thoughts – while thinking all the while of the greater good. And you have heard it before – the way to hell is paved with good intentions!
But then, let's be fair to Brutus. He is endowed with qualities that would make him a successful private man – someone who wrote, thought, spoke, and thought some more. These qualities limited him severely, even fatally, when he tried competing in public life. The world of politics and its fissiparous compulsions is not for the utterly naïve! While Gandhi practiced a philosophy that most politicians would now consider foolish if not suicidal, he was by no means naïve. The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thinkers has cartoon sketches of five personalities on the cover – Lenin, Marx, Kafka, Madam Curie and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He was a political master par excellence. Nobody, but nobody in their right minds could think that he was naïve. He has survived those that thought so. Albert Einstein has this to say about Gandhi – “Generations to come will scarce believe that there ever was a man such as this in flesh and blood that roamed the soil of this earth.” Political astuteness can and does co-exist with philosophic integration. The disintegration happens, as in the case of Brutus, when there is confusion over commitment, over method and purpose of execution of plan and internal bickering. Brutus and Cassius (second in command) never really get along. Brutus instinctively suspects the politician in him and Cassius too is unsure of the long-term implication of Brutus’ decisions. It turns out that Cassius was right on two fatal counts, one being sparing the life of Anthony when assassinating Caesar. Anthony, almost single-handedly, turns Rome against them and goes on to bring about their tragic fall.
The Play turns direction after the assassination of Caesar at a funeral speech. One speech. Just one. And the seeds of the tragic death of all the conspirators including Brutus and Cassius are sown. The speech turns out to be the most powerful character-maker, brand builder in the play. The personalities of Caesar, Anthony, Brutus and Cassius are memorable because of their ability to speak persuasively, powerfully, inspiringly, honestly and directly. A direct and meaningful ability to converse, to speak, to persuade is to my mind the most powerful way to build one's personal brand as a leader. Some of the most memorable lines in Literature have come out of the lips of Shakespeare’s characters. When the Bible asks you to not live by bread alone, it insists that you follow 'every word the proceeds from the mouth of God'. In a Harvard Business Review article, 'Managing Oneself', Drucker talks about learning styles and points out that most people learn by listening and therefore their effective communication would comprise ‘talking’. Put very generally, most successful executives speak well; speak thoroughly and integratedly – almost as if by natural endowment. This is a life-skill and one would do well to acquire the ability. You will have noticed that in discussions, meetings, decision making processes, the leadership quickly moves to the well spoken – speech that is thorough and persuasive in content. Besides, the characters in Shakespeare are always speaking and hearing themselves talk. Harold Bloom points out that the characters grow through the play because they are continuously over-hearing themselves talk. The spoken word then acquires great significance and Hinduism looks at vac and mauna (disciplined silence) along with mananam (giving something mind-time) and dhyanam (focused thought on the subject to the exclusion of everything else) in a psycho-spiritual continuum. So when the rishis spoke their utterances became mantras!
One final observation, mentioned in greater detail elsewhere, is about the tragic heroes and their relationship with women. Both Brutus and Caesar would have escaped their tragic ends had they given Portia and Calpurnia (wives both) audience. From the play it is obvious that Brutus never took Portia into confidence over the conspiracy issue. His mono-maniacal projection of his concerns on Caesar sounded like a strong argument but wasn’t a strong argument in reality. Portia could have given him the alternative, feminine – yin or prakriti – perspective of the situation. She would have sensed, intuitively, the deception that Cassius and the other conspirators were indulging in. They included Brutus because they felt his name would lend credibility to their actions not because they ‘loved Rome more’. Brutus stood alone in the deception and paid for it. Calpurnia’s dream meant what she explained and Caesar did agree not to venture forth on that day. But one of the conspirators reinterpreted the dream to mean the opposite. Caesar ventured never to return again. To my mind, a depleting relationship with the most significant woman in the tragic hero’s life was indicative of the depleting ‘anima’ inside him. With a total masculine orientation comes fatigue, psychosomatic diseases and social and filial alienation. But like psychologist CG Jung observes – “You are destined to make choices.”
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